Aiming to raise the standards of Thai and Khmer offerings in the capital, the menu at Needa boasts an array of traditional dishes. Editor Marissa Carruthers and photographer Charles Fox put them to the test.
“She’s picking herbs for one of the dishes,” says Needa general manager, Toby Pearson, referring to a woman hunched over a neat row of herbs that line the mini garden to the front of the restaurant – a nice touch to its philosophy of serving up fresh authentic Thai and Khmer cuisine.
With the neighbouring country’s cuisine often wrongly sitting on the same spectrum as Cambodia’s to those whose palates are non-the-wiser, – the main distinction being Thailand’s dishes have fire while Cambodia’s are much milder, relying on herbs more than spices – Needa’s other aim is to highlight the nuances of each.
Opened in early 2014, the owners – one Thai and three Khmers – wanted to raise the bar for Thai cooking in the capital while specialising in high-end local cuisine. Two Thai and two Khmer chefs were recruited, and a menu taking in delicacies from the two countries concocted. The result is a divine array of recipes that span salads and soups, through to noodles, seafood and curries.
When it comes to Cambodian cooking, prahok is a staple, and features in any restaurant claiming to have a Cambodian connection. Also referred to as “fish cheese” because of its potent smell and taste, the fermented fish paste is a common addition to Cambodian cooking, however, on its own it is not for the uninitiated.
Needa’s upscale version ($7.50) is fermented then baked for 25 minutes, giving it a crispy bite. Served next to a bed of salad and root vegetables intricately carved into flowers, the thin pancake of prahok is as strong in taste as it is in smell, and should be approached with caution by novices.
The salted crab papaya salad (served in a set with chicken wings and sticky rice – $9.50) has a sweet tang but brings tears to the eyes. With the heavy nod towards chilli packing a punch, this salad comes with a kick.
Sticking to tradition, nom banh-chuk ($5.50) resides on the menu. Rather than the familiar dish seen on Cambodia’s streets, Needa’s version elevates the traditional street food to fine dining levels. Making the perfect platter for sharing, a bowl of chicken curry is served alongside a board containing shredded cucumber, bitter lemon, pickled cabbage, chopped long beans, banana flowers, mint leaves and fresh noodles.
Needa’s tom yam ($7) is a signature dish, and this one really packs a punch. Possibly one of the best I’ve had in the capital, you know you’re alive after each mouthful, with the chilli and spices shining through. Opting for the prawn over the chicken, the soup, which boasts an incredible consistency, was full of a healthy portion of plump, juicy prawns.
Having set out to elevate Khmer and Thai cooking, Needa has done just that, producing a range of delectable dishes from the neighbouring countries. And with an extensive menu to navigate, there’s every reason to return.